Dating With a Disability [Part 2]

The initial dating with a disability post I wrote back in March was such a hit that I wanted to do a follow-up. I think sometimes society has a hard time understanding that people with disabilities want the same things everyone else does: love, success, lifelong friendships. And those things are attainable for the disability population. However, it may just mean there are more logistics to figure out.

In the case of dating, for me that meant thousands of questions were going through my head: 1). When should I tell him about my disability? 2). How will he respond? 3). Will he care? 4). If we get serious, will he resent me for what I can’t do? 5). If we get serious, will he feel like my caretaker?

Even now, after my boyfriend and I have been dating for 3 and a half years, some of those questions still surface. However, we’ve dealt with them just like we’ve traversed the rest of our relationship: with openness, frequent communication, and love.

When should I tell him: Honestly, it was answered on its own. Because my disability is visible, it’s not something I could hide. No, I didn’t have a “I have CP” tattoo on my forehead, and I have never introduced myself to someone by saying, “Hi, my name’s Amelia, and I have CP.” However, I’ve always prided myself on being open with people. The reality of my disability came out pretty early on…and even though I fretted over how the conversation would go, it went as smooth as though I had said, “My day was good, how was yours.”

How will he respond: My Cerebral Palsy mattered to him, but it didn’t all at the same time. It didn’t prevent him from wanting to date me. However, it mattered in the sense that he wanted to understand it enough to know how to help me when he could, which I was grateful for. More than anything, he wanted to know how living with a disability shaped the way I viewed the world. And in that moment, I knew I wanted to spend my days helping him to understand the world I lived in: the world of oppression, marginalization, discrimination…but also the world of a culture that has its own language, values, history, and perspective.

Will he care: He did. But he cared in the sense of, “It hurts me to see you in pain,” as opposed to, “I don’t want a girlfriend who has a disability.” Yes, it’s part of our relationship, but it’s not the only piece. It means we have to do certain things certain a little differently, but it doesn’t prevent us from loving each other. However, I will say it does take a special person to care in this way. You want someone to care enough about your disability that they see it as part of you, but not so much that it is the only thing they see when they look at you. I’m happy to say that’s what I’ve found. And honestly, each day it amazes me. Sometimes it still takes my breath away that I’ve found someone who cares enough about my disability that he has taken up the disability fight out of sheer love for me. For example, the first time my boyfriend became enraged when he saw a car parked in a handicapped space without an appropriate license or placard…I felt heard, I felt seen, and finally, I felt like I didn’t have to face the injustices of the world alone.

If we get serious, will he resent me for what I can’t do: Honestly, I still worry about this one. Since we are serious, it’s a thought that bounces around in my head pretty regularly. And since we are so open with each other, it’s also conversation we have often. Do I think he resents me now? No. Do I think there are things he wishes we could do together that my disability prevents? Sometimes, yes. The majority of those things have been centered around activities that require extended walking. However, about a year ago, when I invested in a mobility scooter, a new world opened for us. With my scooter, I was able to get out and be more active and not be as easily exhausted like I’d get if I was walking everywhere. Therefore, we’ve been able to enjoy things like going to the mall or walking around downtown, whereas previously I’d avoid those things because more walking meant pain…and pain meant both of us being unhappy. However, in another sense, sometimes I worry how my disability will impact me as I age. What if in two years I can’t do what I’m doing now? I’d be lying if I said I didn’t worry about it. But if I know one thing, it’s this: I’ll figure out a way to handle those obstacles as they come my way. I always do. It’s who I am.

If we get serious, will he feel like my caretaker: I still worry about this one too. It’s a conversation we have very openly, as neither of us wants to reach a point where we have a caretaker/patient relationship. Honestly, what’s made the difference is understanding and perspective. Are there things he has to help me with? Absolutely. But do I help him with aspects of himself that are weak because those are my strong areas? Yes. At the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about. The give and take. In my case, many of the ways my boyfriend supports me are physical in nature, but he’s also incredibly kind, loving, and caring too. When I look at a caretaker/patient relationship, I see it as very one-sided. And that’s not what our relationship is. It’s two people supporting and strengthening each other to be the best versions of themselves.

At the end of the day, dating with a disability is just the same as typical dating, but with a double scoop of openness, communication, understanding…and a dash of humor (because if we’re not laughing through life, what’s even the point).

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To the woman at Target whose daughter was curious about my Cerebral Palsy

I saw you in the Tupperware aisle and couldn’t stop smiling at your daughter sitting in the shopping cart. Her hair was pulled back into braids, and I smiled as her braids twirled from side to side as she looked around, taking in the wonder of the world around her. You were looking at lunch boxes, likely planning out your meals for the week and hoping your child did not place another Frozen-themed item into your cart. But your daughter kept sneaking glances at me, and I smiled at her, taking note of the curiosity in her eyes.

Your daughter kept looking at me, and I remained patient, waiting for her question. She began to speak, but I didn’t hear what she said.

“What?” I asked her.

“Nothing,” you said, hushing her.

As you hurriedly walked away, your daughter’s eyes drifted back my direction, but I didn’t call after you…even though I wanted to. I didn’t have the chance to tell you that this kind of situation has happened more times than I can count, and that I am not embarrassed or hurt.

Instead, I wish you would have allowed your daughter to ask me about my disability. I wish you would have thought about the importance of teaching your child that differences are okay, and that just because I have a disability doesn’t mean she should be afraid to approach me and talk to me. What most people don’t realize is that I love to talk about my Cerebral Palsy. I love to answer questions to allow children and adults to better understand what my life is like. I love to have the opportunity to explain my perspective on the world.

I am not the first person your daughter will meet who is different. Though you may have felt uncomfortable because your daughter tried to initiate a conversation with me, don’t be. You are her role model. If you feel uncomfortable around me or instinctively want to walk the other direction, so will she. And don’t be worried about saying the wrong thing or that she might. The only wrong thing is not saying anything at all.

Allow your daughter to talk with me and ask me anything under the sun. Allow her to learn that differences are unique and something to be proud of. Give her this moment, even though you may have so many other things on your mind. I’ll be glad to talk with her for as long as she wants. I’ll tell her that this was the way that I was born, but that I would not change it for anything. I’ll tell her that I do things differently, but that’s okay. I’ll tell her normal is just a setting on a washing machine.

Allow her curiosity to bloom and her questions to flow freely, because guess what? She’s learning the most important lesson of all: inclusion.

 

Jobs, Money, My Future…Oh My!

To say it has been a long time since I’ve blogged is an understatement. Between being in my final semester of graduate school (which starts back on Monday), stressing about jobs, money, and my future, and fitting in time with my boyfriend and my cat, there hasn’t been time for much else. However, as usual, this blog/writing has been in the back of my mind. So, here I am.

When I first began my MSW (Master’s in Social Work) program in August of 2014, I thought I knew what I was in for. I thought I knew the population I wanted to work with. I thought I had the hard parts figured out already. However, I’m beginning to realize that starting my MSW program was just the start. As it turns out, the hard decisions have yet to be made. People ask what population do you want to work with and what kind of work do you gravitate towards within social work…and my expression is completely blank. Because you know what? I don’t know. I don’t know, and that’s scaring me.

As part of my MSW program, each year students are required to complete an internship/field placement for each of the two years of the program. During my first year, I began by interning with an organization that works with individuals with disabilities. However, after a big personality clash between my supervisor and I, I made a quick switch after a few weeks. I then interned for the rest of the year at an adult day health center for individuals with dementia. While I enjoyed that, the pace was somewhat slow for my taste and I didn’t really like working with the elderly population, so I knew that during my second year, I wanted to do something completely different. Therefore, this year, my field placement has been in the case management department of a local hospital. While I enjoyed it at first and I’m able to do the work, I’ve recently realized that it’s not where I want to work following graduation.

Here’s what I do know as of now: I’m interested in mental health (but don’t have any experience with it), I’m interested in disabilities (but know that I want to directly work with clients as opposed to doing a lot of behind the scenes work) and I want to do clinical work. I also know that I love working with kids, but don’t necessarily know if I’d like working with them in a mental health capacity.

And here’s where all the frustration comes in. While I realize that it is just as good to know where you don’t want to work as well as where you do, I thought I’d have a better idea at this point. I thought I’d have it figured out, and I don’t. I thought graduate school would help me figure out what the hell I want to do with my life, but it hasn’t. Other than knowing I want to be a social worker, obviously. Which is good, I guess. But it doesn’t feel like enough.

I’m hoping that I have a better idea of what direction I want to move in following graduation, but what if don’t? What if I’m just as clueless then as I am now? The hard part is that I know I’ll need to get a job following graduation in order to pay for rent, bills, and living. At the same time, I’m just as scared to take a job working with a population I don’t have experience working with. To be honest, that terrifies me….to get in a job and realize the learning curve is way more than I bargained for. Therefore, the obvious result would be to take a job in an area of social work that I already have worked in (like in gerentology or the hospital)…except for the fact that I know I don’t enjoy working with those populations/in those settings. Agh! I’m frustrated, to say the least.

Thankfully, I’ve been able to talk to multiple people about all this. And all of them have told me that it’ll all work out and that I’ll find a job. However, what many of them have also said that it may not be a job I really like right out of graduate school. And I guess that’s what’s so hard. The uncertainty. The not knowing where I’ll be working. And the likelihood that even once I find a job, I might not even like it. How crappy is that? I thought the whole point of going to graduate school was so that I could work in a field I love and enjoy going to work every day?

And when I get in this kind of funk, the ever looming question emerges: Am I cut out for this work…Do I really even want to be a social worker? At this point, I know one thing: I know I want to help people. I want to help people more than anything in the world. And hopefully, when the time comes and I’m sweating my way through all sorts of job interviews, that will be enough.

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To Those Who Taught Me To Dream

When I was little, I wanted nothing more than to be a ballerina. Around Christmastime, my grandmother would take me to see The Nutcracker at the Koger Center. As I sat up in the balcony in my checkered dress and patent leather shoes, I stared with admiration at the character of Clara. I imagined myself twirling around in my own leotard with a toy nutcracker in my hands, lost in the music and a dance that was all my own. When I got home from seeing The Nutcracker, I’d put on my leotard and tutu, grab a favorite stuffed animal at the time, and twirl in circles to the music only I could hear.

It was in those moments, in the safety of my childhood bedroom, that I began to dream, imagining doing things I knew I wouldn’t be able to do in reality due to my disability. I imagined dancing with a grace I had seen only in ballerinas. I put on my ballet shoes and twirled until my unstable balance got the best of me and I fell to the floor in frustration. I even remember asking my parents if I could take ballet lessons, determined to learn how to create the beauty I had seen in the character of Clara. The opportunity never arose though, simply because I didn’t have the balance to be a ballerina. Despite walking on my tiptoes, twirling around in circles on those same tiptoes was out of the question.

As I got older and I filled my head with more realistic dreams, I never stopped imagining doing the things I’d never be able to fully experience. I thought of dancing to the music of my world. I imagined running down the street and feeling the wind on my face as I chased the orange and red sunset I saw in the distance. I pictured myself climbing the huge oak tree in my backyard, wanting nothing more than to find a sturdy limb I could sit on so I could rest my back against the tree’s broad trunk and escape into my favorite book. The creative imagination I possessed placed me right into the worlds I dreamed, though I knew I was so far away from actually experiencing them.

I am forever grateful to the people throughout my life who have encouraged my imagination and dreams. Though I was constantly reminded by other kids around me of the things I was unable to do, so many of the adult figures in my life understood the importance of believing in my creativity. Because of those individuals, I have learned what it means to still hope and strive for the things that still seem a bit out of reach. Through my ability to dream, I developed a determination that has propelled me through my life, despite stumbling again and again. While I may not have had the chance to be a ballerina who twirls endlessly with the grace of a perfect melody, I have sung my heart out at a voice recital, capturing an entire room with the simple sound of my voice. I have participated in theatre productions, achieving my moment in the spotlight by being Glinda the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz. I have written of specific moments of pain during the months following intense operations, creating the same tears in the eyes of my readers that I possessed during my moments of defeat. Though I may not have had the chance to live the experiences I longed for, I have continued to move to the song of my own life, continuously grateful to those who taught me to dream and create my own destiny.

Sharing My Story: A New Beginning

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Though this is not my first blog, this is the first blog in which I plan to focus solely on discussing my experiences of living with Cerebral Palsy and the process of getting these experiences eventually published. Specifically, my goal is to raise awareness for Cerebral Palsy and other disabilities and allow others to gain a deeper understanding of what it’s like to live with a physical disability.

To kick off this blog and a new chapter of sharing my story of living with CP with others, here is rough draft of the talk I have been giving to elementary and middle schools in Buncombe County since November 2013:

I was born with Cerebral Palsy, a disability that affects my nerves and my muscles, causing me to walk differently than most people. I’ve had multiple intense surgeries and 15 years of physical therapy. My Cerebral Palsy affects the way I walk because my muscles are really tight and because I don’t have very good balance. Because of being physically different, I was always an outcast in school. I had trouble making friends, and it was hard not having someone who knew what I struggled with on a daily basis. When I walk, it is very evident that I am different, and because of my visible differences, I was an easy target for bullying in school.

I had my first bullying experience when I was in kindergarten. At that age, I had to use canes to help me walk. Because of having to use canes, I wasn’t able to walk very quickly, and there was a girl named Ashley who enjoyed picking on me because she knew I wouldn’t be able to run away from her. Every day on the playground during recess, Ashley came up behind me and pulled my hair. It wasn’t a friendly pull either. She grabbed a fistful of my hair and yanked as hard as she could, laughing as I screamed in pain. She pulled so hard that I couldn’t even try to get away from her. Every day, I came home crying, and every morning, I woke up dreading having to go to school and see Ashley on the playground. I felt like crying when I realized I was completely alone and there was no one willing to stick up for me. One day, my teacher, Miss Sandy, came up to me and told me to hit Ashley with one of my canes to help her realize that what she was doing was hurting me. See, Ashley was mentally disabled, so she didn’t know any better, and hitting her was one of the only ways Miss Sandy knew to make her stop. I never did hit Ashley though. I couldn’t do it. Hitting her would make me just like her: someone who wanted to hurt someone else. I don’t think Miss Sandy really wanted me to hit Ashley though. She was just trying to teach me the importance of standing up for myself. In many ways, it felt impossible. How was I supposed to stand up for myself when it felt like I didn’t have a friend who would stand up for me?

I’ve struggled with forming friendships my entire life. As a kid, I wanted friends more than anything. That’s why I never told a teacher that kids were making fun of me. I became afraid that once I told a teacher, the people who picked on me would call me a “tattle-tale” and the other kids would distance themselves even more. Because I was so physically different from the other kids in my class, all I wanted was to feel like I fit in. In my early friendships, many of the people who became friends with me were my friends out of pity. Even though they didn’t specifically tell me so, I could tell it was true. I could tell by the way they looked at me that they felt sorry for me. When I was young, I kept those friendships anyway because all I wanted was a place where I felt like I belonged. However, many of those friendships didn’t last long because most of the people who had been spending time with me left when they got tired of pretending to be my friend.

It wasn’t until I became friends with a boy named Tommy in first grade that things began to change. Tommy was the first person to visibly stick up for me. He confronted the people who picked on me, telling them it wasn’t okay to pick on someone who couldn’t help that she was different. Tommy’s friends laughed at him for sticking up for me, but he didn’t care. He stuck up for me anyway and was there for me no matter what. Tommy also saw the numerous people who became friends with me because they felt sorry for me. He knew how much that hurt me. Even though Tommy wasn’t disabled, he saw how I cried day after day when another person I thought was my friend just got tired of trying. Tommy’s presence in my life didn’t stop other kids from picking on me, but I began to feel a little less alone. Even now, I don’t have many friends. However, the few friends I do have are incredibly close to me, and I am happy to say that one of those friends is still Tommy.

When I was in fifth grade, I took a required PE class. In my PE class, dodge ball was typically the game of choice. Every week in PE, I was chosen last for dodge ball. I even remember one particular day when one of my friends, Allison, was the team caption. This made me excited because I thought: Yes, finally! I won’t be picked last! Allison will choose me since we’re friends. Each team captain began to choose players, and I waited with excitement for Allison to say my name. I looked towards her with a smile on my face, but my smile faded as I realized she was picking everyone else but me. Finally, it came down to Miranda, a girl who had just broken her leg, and me. It was Allison’s turn to pick, and I started to inch towards her. And then you know what happened? She chose Miranda over me! Miranda, the girl no one liked because she was so mean, and the girl who couldn’t even move as well as me because she had broken her leg. I couldn’t believe it!

I was incredibly sad from being picked last for dodge ball, but you know what? That wasn’t even the worst part. The worst part was seeing a girl named Rachel holding a dodge ball in her hands, a small smile on her face when she saw me, already eager to pelt me in the face with the ball. When the dodge ball game started, I hung towards the back. Despite dreading having to play this game every week, I knew a few tricks. I knew staying along the back wall was the best way to not get out immediately, and I knew I’d be one of the last players remaining on my team primarily for this reason. Therefore, the goal was to simply wait for the rest of my teammates to get out. You would assume the waiting part was easy, but it wasn’t. It was just more time I spent wondering how hard I’d get pelted with a dodge ball. Once none of my other teammates remained and I was the only player left, I allowed myself to look over at the other team. By that point, the other team consisted of six players, and they each held a dodge ball. Six against one, and I didn’t even have my own dodge ball for defense. The players on the other team looked back and forth at each other, trying to decide who would have the pleasure of getting me out. Honestly though, I don’t know why they took time trying to decide. They all knew Rachel had to be the one to do it. Eventually, I looked over at Rachel, staring at her just as hard as she was staring at me. Right before she threw the ball, I saw her chuckle quietly to herself. A few moments later, the dodge ball hit me right in the face. The ball hit me so hard that I lost my balance, falling onto the hard surface of my school’s basketball court. Initially, I could hardly breathe, much less get up off the floor. My PE coach came over immediately to help me up and to scold Rachel for what she had done. However, I doubt Rachel ever got the scolding she deserved because I continued to get pelted with Rachel’s dodge balls throughout my entire fifth grade year.

As I got older, I thought the bullying would stop, but it didn’t. The summer after my sophomore year in high school, I attended a creative arts camp. One day I was walking back from a creative writing class, and out of the corner of my eye, I saw a girl named Lauren imitating the way I was walking. I turned to her and said, “Hey, what are you doing?” “Imitating the way you’re walking,” Lauren said. When I asked her why, she explained that she was supposed to observe and imitate people as an assignment for her theatre class. Even though I told her she hurt my feelings, Lauren didn’t listen. As I walked away, I watched as she laughed and continued to imitate me. I ran back to my room and cried, so sad and frustrated that I was still getting picked on. Even at an older age, getting picked on hurt just as much, if not more. Lauren knew what she had been doing. She saw how I cried in front of her, and yet she still continued to imitate me and laugh at me. I couldn’t understand why she would be so mean on purpose. I ended up telling a staff member about what happened, and she contacted the teacher to find out that the imitation was never a class assignment. The next day, though, something good happened. Lauren did the one thing I never thought she would ever do: she said she was sorry.

Being bullied, either physically or emotionally, is hurtful for anyone, but it’s especially hurtful if someone bullies you for something you have no control over, like a physical disability. My bullying experiences have affected me my entire life. I still remember the details of every bullying experience I’ve ever had. I still remember how alone and broken the experiences made me feel, and how it seemed like the bullying would never stop. Typically, kids in school try to be different because they don’t want to blend in with the crowd. For those kids, it’s important to stand out. In my case, I have always been incredibly different, and all I have ever wanted was to be normal and blend in. However, differences have never stopped me from trying to be as independent as possible. I have Cerebral Palsy, but I am a survivor.

**If you are interested in having me come speak at your school, please have the school counselor at your school contact me via email at: accoonrod[at]gmail[dot]com**